Parshat Ki Tavo — multiple modalities in Moshe’s classroom 

Parshat Ki Tavo — multiple modalities in Moshe’s classroom 

Education Director, Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley

How do you know when you’ve spent too much time online?  I recently discovered the answer for myself while I was looking at someone’s social media post. I found myself thinking—I mean really thinking—about whether to “like” the photo they’d posted.   You know what I mean—clicking that thumbs-up icon to indicate support or enthusiasm for the post.   There I was, staring at this picture and wondering, “Well, it already has a couple of likes; should I like it, too?  Would others give me a dislike if they disapprove?  Maybe just leave it…?”

That’s when I told myself I’d been spending too much time online.

It turns out, though, that social scientists have been studying online likes and dislikes to see what they can tell us about human behavior.  A New York Times article described this experiment: Experimenters would give every comment an artificial thumbs up or thumbs down and see how the next user would respond.   If a comment received an artificial thumbs up, the next user was 32% more likely to give it another thumbs up.  Perhaps that’s human nature—joining a trend with the group.

In the Jewish context, I was reminded of a famous idea Mordechai Kaplan wrote about regarding Jewish observance and community.  He suggested that there are three paradigms under which people generally approach observance—belief, behavior, and belonging.

Belief entails performing mitzvot because you believe God commands or demands it of us.  Behavior means doing Jewish rituals because you feel it affects how you behave—perhaps it makes you a better person, more aware, or more spiritual.  Belonging is the sense that Jewish commitment is important because it’s what we do as Jews, and we are integral links in the chain of Jewish tradition and heritage. I suspect that each paradigm resonates a little more or less for us at different times, and for different mitzvot.

Parshat Ki Tavo seemingly focuses on getting people to conform, through consequence aimed at behavior modification.  It includes a litany of curses—as well as a list of blessings—with the goal of influencing the Israelites to follow all the mitzvot.  Rashi, however, sheds a different light on the parsha when he writes, “Kan kilel et kol haTorah kulah, v’kibluah aleyhem b’alah uvishvuah.”  (27:6)  In this passage, says Rashi, all of the Torah was included, in one form or another.   And when the Israelites heard the entire Torah, they accepted it willingly, with curses and oaths.  That is, they chose to accept the Torah despite the threat of curses, not because of them.  Rashi posits that the Israelites freely chose to be bound by the Torah’s mitzvot.

I love this comment of Rashi’s, because it’s a Jewish educator’s fantasy.  I’ve often struggled with how to bring students to embrace Jewish practice because they want to, because they love it, because it means something special, and not just because someone said so. What method did Moshe employ that led the Israelites to accept Torah on their own?

A professor of mine at JTS, Dr. Shira Epstein, once pointed out that Moshe outlines a series of “experiential activities” in this parsha that profoundly affect the Israelites. First, they would take some of every first fruit that they have personally planted and harvested, and bring it before the kohanim in acknowledgment and thanksgiving.

Next, they would recite a sweeping summary of the people’s history:  “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt. . . and the Egyptians oppressed us . . . God brought us to this land flowing with milk and honey. I now bring the first fruits of the soil” (Deut. 26:5–9). Finally, the people are charged with building large stones, plastering them with lime, and inscribing on them the words of the Torah.

In educational parlance, Moshe (who of course is known as Moshe Rabenu, “our teacher,”) used scaffolding to ensure that his learners were engaged in multiple modalities: in the examples above, they were kinesthetically, verbally, and linguistically fortifying their relationship to their common heritage and their communal bond as an emerging nation.

Interestingly, the parsha goes on to say (29:3), “lo natan lev ladaat, eynayim lirot, voznayim lishmoah ad hayom hazeh.” — “God did not give you a heart to know, and eyes to see, and ears to hear until this very day.”  In other words, it is only after engaging with a full range of educational experiences—visual, aural, tangible, emotional, communal—that now on this day, they truly have Torah in their hearts.

For parents, teachers, and anyone interested in passing Torah and Jewish practice to the next generation, this passage provides an important model.  We are so fortunate to have a myriad of Jewish educational options and opportunities in our greater community.  By supporting them and using them to create meaningful experiences for learners of all ages—experiences that integrate the academic with the experiential, formal with informal, and yes, online study with face-to-face learning—we help ensure that learners will find a place of belonging in the Jewish community and choose to embrace Torah with a lev ladaat, a knowing heart.

And that is worthy of a big thumbs up.

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